If there was one country that needed to hear good news about significant progress in developing a cure for HIV, it would be South Africa!
We have the largest HIV epidemic in the world with an estimated 7.1 million people living with the virus. This accounts for almost 20% of the global estimate of 37 million people infected.
But there’s hope…
Scientists at Temple University and the University of Nebraska Medical Centre recently announced one of the most major breakthroughs in HIV-cure research. The findings were published in the Nature Communications journal.
Through specialised treatments, the scientists were able to completely remove HIV from the DNA of what they refer to as ‘humanised’ mice. They believe that this is early step towards finding a cure for humans.
How did they remove the virus?
For the study, the scientists administered a treatment called LASER ART to a group of infected humanised mice. The LASER ART treatment was released slowly into the mice over several weeks to target specific areas including bone marrow, the liver, lymph nodes and tissue in the spleen, amongst other areas.
As the final form of treatment, they used a gene-editing tool called CRISPR-Cas9 to remove the remaining HIV cells in the mice’s DNA. With this gene-editing technology, they were able to completely remove the HIV chromosome in the mice.
“This strategy [CRISPR-Cas9] allowed for the removal of the large intervening DNA fragments across the viral genome and mitigated any change for the emergence of viral escape mutants,” the study says.
What is the challenge today
Right now, Anti-Retroviral Therapy (ART) is only able to suppress HIV’s duplication — it can’t remove it completely from an infected person’s DNA. The researchers highlighted this as one of the reasons why finding a cure has been so difficult.
“While ART has transformed HIV-1 infection into a chronic treatable disease, [the] virus persists in tissues that include the gut, lymph nodes, brain, spleen, amongst other things,” the study says.
“The inability of ART to eliminate the virus in these tissue sanctuaries remains the major obstacle towards a disease cure.”
Interesting to note is that the researchers from the different institutions began their research independently. University of Nebraska Medical Centre researchers were working on their trials with LASER ART, while researchers from Temple University had been working with CRISPR tech for a number of years.
The combination of their two different methods was the key formula to eradicating the virus in the humanised mice.
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What this means for the future of HIV treatment
“[Our] results demonstrated that eradication of replication-competent HIV-1 persistent in infectious cell and tissue sites of infected animals can be achieved,” the study says.
“These proof-of-concept results offer readily defined and realistic pathways towards strategies for HIV-1 elimination. This is a first important to step towards a longer journey for viral eradication.”
If the results continue to show success, the researchers indicated that clinical trials could start as early as next year.